The cliché: As Newt Gingrich continues to pledge he'll stay in the race for the Republican nomination until the convention, the media grows ever more concerned for ole' Newt, warning that he risks "tarnishing his legacy." But whence began this fear that a prolonged but futile fight for the nomination would destroy one's historical record for all of time?
"His White House bid had all the makings of an improbable comeback, but it’s now coming to a far more ignominious end than he imagined, a finish that risks tarnishing his political legacy," write Politico's Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns. "[S]ome friends of the former speaker have expressed concern that his insistence on staying at the bar long after it has closed will tarnish his legacy," reports The Daily Caller's Jamie Weinstein. National Journal's Alex Roarty echoes, "But a continued jeremiad against the likely Republican nominee, including an insistence on taking his campaign to the convention, will tarnish Gingrich’s legacy, some GOP figures say." Gingrich loves history, so this argument ought to persuade him, right?
Where it's from: One would assume there's a steady precedent for otherwise well-regarded figures "tarnishing their legacy" by bowing out of a run for the presidency too late, but actually, there doesn't seem to be much evidence for this. To understand where it got its start, perhaps it's instructive to look back to 1800, the first really fiercely contested presidential election in American politics. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran as a president-vice president ticket for their party. But when they tied for electoral votes, Burr saw his chance and refused to cede the election to his running-mate Jefferson, throwing the decision to a deadlocked House of Representatives. If you think the length of the race between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney hurts the country, read author Jay Wnik's description of the fear struck by the House fight in his book The Great Upheaval:
The whole experiment seemed to be unraveling. As France had demonstrated all too vividly, constitutions could be unmade as quickly as they were made, and unity could fall apart as rapidly as it was secured.
In other words, Burr's refusal to bow down threatened not only to destroy his legacy, but to destroy the fragile Constitution. Burr's reputation survived at least well enough that he ended up serving as Jefferson's vice president. Alas, we'll never know how deeply Burr's ill-fated race really did impact our memory of him, because he quickly overshadowed his role in the election by shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel. It's hard to assess, then, how heavily this race would have weighed on America's memory without the larger claim to fame.